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Book Review : With Characters, Trilogy Is Complete

March 02, 1987|CAROLYN SEE

The Locked Room: The New York Trilogy, Volume III by Paul Auster (Sun & Moon: $13.95)

With "The Locked Room," Paul Auster completes his New York trilogy. Why did he pick New York as a setting for these three novels? Perhaps because New York is a confined world, small and jammed up, layered with intricate patterns of geography, history, human joy and pain. And why is this work a trilogy? It's a good bet that with these three short novels, Auster is staging a careful literary debut or statement: These are the things that interest me, he announces, and here are some of the tricks I can do with them. (Now that the trilogy is "out of the way," or "on the record," another, major novel is appearing this year.)

In Volume I, "City of Glass," a detective is hired to follow an anonymous someone--to become acquainted with his life. The plot is then worked out in terms of space. On a given day, a man walks this way in the city. On another day, he walks another way. How does this differentiate him from any other person? Kicked up another semiotic notch or two, what is human identity in the first place? Can it be discerned by the space in the cosmos that a person takes up, and the patterns he makes as he does so?

"City of Glass" was not exactly a heart-stopping page-turner, nor, I think, was it expected to be. It was (1) a cursory look at the universe, and (2) a strict examination of just one aspect of the novel.

In "Ghosts," Volume II, Auster--again, if I read correctly--took an academic look at more aspects of the art of fiction. Once more, this is a detective story. A man is hired to watch another man. But that man, in fact, may be watching the first. As the one watches and the other is watched, a lifetime goes by--more accurately, the "real" life of the watcher fades away, so engrossed is he in his "watching" task. Other ghosts surface in "Ghosts," such as the old Nathaniel Hawthorne story of Wakefield, the man who went out one night for a stroll and didn't return for 20 years: Which life was Wakefield's "real" life, and how can the outsider make a correct determination about this? Again, what is human identity, and what is our own physical and spiritual relationship to it?

Not Characters at All

The characters in "Ghosts" are named by color: Black, White, Brown, Blue and so on. In fact, they are not characters, and this makes Volume II more difficult to read than Volume I, which was no picnic. It was Auster's audacious task to engross the reader simply in terms of history, plot and point of view, in the same way that he made use of patterns of space in "City of Glass."

It's a very fancy way of showing off--a making of hollandaise without the eggs and expecting the sauce to hold together--to write two novels where the characters are utterly without interest and importance. But then, in Volume III, when Auster finally allows himself the luxury of character, what a delicious treat he serves up for the reader!

Again, here it is a short novel cast in the form of a thriller. But the story is told in the first person by a genuine character who feels love and pain and envy. He grows up in New Jersey's suburbs, shares families and a communal backyard with his best friend, Fanshawe, a boy seen as perfect in every way. Fanshawe is handsome, talented, elegant, charming--but aloof, perhaps a little cold at the center.

The narrative begins when the teller of the story ("Auster?") is summoned to an apartment in Manhattan by a beautiful woman. She has been married to Fanshawe but he walked out one day (just as in Hawthorne's "Wakefield") and disappeared. Would the storyteller please act as detective and find her husband? Or, if it turns out her husband is dead, would the storyteller please see about publishing this stack of novels, plays and poems that Fanshawe has left around the house?

Decides Instantly

The storyteller/detective takes one look at this gorgeous and intelligent woman and her utterly enchanting young son and decides that Fanshawe must be dead, because no one with life left in his limbs could stay away from such an extraordinary female. Of course, here is where character comes into play. No cipher named Blue or Brown, no stick figure pacing out patterns in the labyrinth of New York could (1) come to such a conclusion, or (2) allow that conclusion to color the rest of his life.

The storyteller marries the beautiful woman and sees to it that the works of Fanshawe get published and that they get the acclaim they deserve. Then the obvious rumors begin; that there is no Fanshawe, that the narrator is Fanshawe, or that--at the very least--he wrote Fanshawe's works. And as for Fanshawe's "widow," does she love Fanshawe or the person succeeding Fanshawe?

And of course, it would be unthinkable for Fanshawe himself not to turn up. What's the point of disappearing if you can't turn up again? What happens next cannot be revealed, because having already dizzyingly demonstrated his mastery of time, space, history and myth in the art of the novel, Auster has created characters so fragile and believable that their privacy should only be broken by a respectful reader who cares enough to buy their book.

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